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Tuesday, January 5, 2010


“Whoever controls the calendar controls society.” That was the gist of the lesson that one of my history professors once taught us in years past. It was an insight that opened my eyes and has influenced my thinking ever since.

In the Western world, Jews live with two calendars: A secular calendar that starts in January and a religious calendar that begins around the months of September or October. The little pocket diary I use, follows the Hebrew calendar, so I go from September to September. This is not only a calendar issue; it is a mind set. Broadly speaking, in September/October I look forward to the High Holidays; my next goal is Hanukah (around December); then comes Purim (around Feb/March); and that bring me to Passover (March/April) and finally to Shavuot in May/June.

Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan (d. 1983), the founder of the Reconstructionist movement in Judaism, taught that Jews live in two civilizations simultaneously. In the Diaspora, living in a non-Jewish environment, most Jews function by the secular calendar and our religious calendar becomes at best secondary in our mind set. Things apparently are not too different in Israel where the Hebrew calendar dominates. A recent survey shows that 69% of Israelis have no problem living by the western calendar but they prefer that the government does not pay for its implementation.

Conflicts around the calendar abound in Jewish history. In the early biblical period, the solar calendar was replaced by a lunar-solar calendar. In the 10th cent. BCE, when king Jeroboam I seceded from the southern kingdom of Judah and set up the Kingdom of Israel in the north, he appears to have created a new calendar that was in opposition to the Judean calendar(Cf. I K 12: 32-33). After the Israelites returned from the Exile in the 6th cent. BCE, they brought with them a new calendar that began counting the months in the springtime, as did the Babylonians of their time. They even named the months after Babylonian gods (Nissan, Tammuz, Tishri etc). In the 2nd cent. BCE, during the sectarian conflicts that plagued the Jewish community of Judea, a group led by someone called “The Teacher of Righteousness” claimed that he had a major fight with the “Wicked Priest” (most likely Jonathan, the high priest and brother of Judah the Maccabee). As a result of this confrontation, the group withdrew to the Dead Sea area and, following the old solar calendar, created its own Jewish discipline as reflected in many of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Book of Jubilees.

Today most Jews live by the rabbinic calendar that was finalized around the 4th cent. CE. However, many Reform Jews in the US, follow the Biblical calendar, and celebrate, for example, 7 days of Passover instead of 8 days as dictated by the rabbinic calendar for the Diaspora. Thus, on the 8th day of the holiday, I, as most Reform Jews, am already eating bread, while my Conservative and Orthodox coreligionists are still munching on Matzah.

In the western hemisphere, we function by the Gregorian calendar (set up in the 16th cent. CE), and celebrate January as the first month of the year, even though the month is named after the Roman god, Janus who was the god of doors and gateways. So, in the Jewish community, we too wear another hat, and, on December 31, wish each other, “Happy New Year.” May it bring peace and contentment to all of us.

Looking forward Purim, I am,

Rifat Sonsino

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